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    Old Kabul gardens under threat from development

    KABUL (PAN): For decades the palace and gardens of a former prime minister, Shah Mahmud Khan, have been a place for the residents of western Kabul to gather, picnic and relax.

    But the last of the century-old grounds have been sold and soon the gardens and the bombed-out ruins of the palace will be replaced by a wedding hall, cafes and houses, much to the dismay of Kabulis.

    The grounds are on Reshkhor hill, about 20 kilometres west of Kabul. .

    When the US launched its bombing campaign in late 2001 after the September 11 attacks, the four-storey palace was being used by the Taliban as a military base, according to locals.

    Only a few foundation stones remain of the building, one of the first to be built with cement and stone instead of the traditional mud and straw, and a pigeon house, also rare in Afghanistan.

    Guma Gul, is 83 years old, and has been working in the palace grounds since he was a boy. Before him, his father was the gardener, He said the palace is about 100 years old and the gardens were created about 80 years ago.

    When Shah Mahmud Khan was prime minister, he had more than 1,000 pigeons and four workers were employed only to look after the pigeons. More than 100 gardeners tended the grounds, where Kabulis still come to escape the hectic traffic and pollution of the capital, and remember a more peaceful time before the start of the last three decades of war. .

    Shah Mahmud Khan served as prime minister from 1946 to 1953, under the country's late king Zahir Shah, during one of the most peaceful and prosperous times in Afghanistan. When he died in 1959, the deeds of the land remained with his secretary, Hajji Merza, who fled to Iran when the Soviets invaded in 1979. During the Taliban reign, from 1996 to 2001, the property fell into the hands of the hardline rulers and it was only in 2002, that Merza returned from Iran and was able to transfer the deeds into the name of Khan's son, Sultan Mahmud Ghazi.

    But Ghazi sold the property to developers, who intend to remove what's left of the palace and build homes and a massive wedding hall on the property.

    Merza said the land was sold for between $50,000 to $100,000 to Said Anwari, the head of the Afghan Islamic Movement Party which supported Hamid Karzai in the first presidential election in 2005.

    Anwari was agriculture minister and governor of the western province of Herat in Karzai's government and stood in the recent parliamentary election.

    Merza said that before the property was sold, the garden was open to everyone for free, but now families who want to picnic or walk there must pay 200 afghanis. Already construction has begun inside the grounds, and many people are concerned about the loss of one of their few recreational places.

    Gulam Sarwar, a resident of Reshkhor, said the number of visitors had declined since the grounds were sold. The sale has also had an impact on the local market which used to thrive on a Friday when hundreds of people came to wander in the grounds.

    Asadullah, a resident of Kabul, who was walking in the garden with his family, said the garden was the only green space for people in the west of Kabul.

    He said the government should stop the property's new owners from building homes there and do more to protect gardens and green spaces, as they took many years to grow and develop.

    Residents of the area say they are opposed to the new developments, but that they have little power to stand up to the developers.

    One resident, Jamshid, urged the government to prevent the destruction of the grounds and preserve it as a place for picnicking. .

    Jamshid said that there was once 200 acres of land to roam in, but now only the garden remains and the rest is full of houses..

    Rasheed, a son of Haji Hasan Ali, said he paid $2,000 per acre for 40 acres of land from Said Hasan Anwari.

    He said they would preserve the garden and construct hotels and cafes on the rest.

    Two other developers planned to build more homes, he said.

    It is not just the palace and garden of Shan Mahmud Khan that is at risk of disappearing as the city of Kabul expands to meet the demands of its growing population. Development is also encroaching on several other historic properties too.

    Abdul Ahad Abasay, head of conservation of historical buildings at the Ministry of Information and Culture, said the problem was that the government did not care about preserving the city's tangible history.

    He warned that if the municipality did not stop new developments around sites such as the pigeon house, the history would be lost.

    However, a senior municipality official, who did not want to be identified, said there was little the government could do if the land was in the hands of a private owner. .

    However, he said the municipality had asked the developers not to destroy the gardens.

    Abasayy said there were several other buildings that the government needed to payattentionn to such as a 100-year-old mosque in the capital that was being threatened by the development of the commercial Gulbahar Centre. The mosque belonged to the chief of the area several centuries ago, and although the developers of the Gulbahar Centre had promised not to encroach upon the mosque, their development has destroyed its ablution area, he said. .

    Another example is the Tup Khana Hill, where about 400 years ago, before the invention of clocks, a cannon was fired off at noon to alert people to the time.

    At the moment, the police have a single room on the hill,but they would like to build a full observation post, Abasay said, adding it would erode the hill's natural heritage.

    If Afghanistan does not pay more attention to the preservation of its historical moments, it will soon lose all contact with its past, he warned.